"Are women choosing romance over math and science?" The very question, which appeared atop an article in Time Magazine last week, should set your teeth on edge. The article reported on a recent study that explored the impact of romantic expectations on women's drive to pursue math or science. That study, it turns out, was fraught with peril.
The study's authors prompted men and women to think about dating and then asked them to gauge their interest in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). Men who thought about dating were no less likely to say they were interested in STEM. Among women, however, the results were different:
When the goal to be romantically desirable is activated, even by subtle situational cues, women report less interest in math and science. One reason why this might be is that pursuing intelligence goals in masculine fields, such as STEM, conflicts with pursuing romantic goals associated with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms.
Critics of the study were quick to respond. Some found that the study reinforced the very "romantic scripts and gender norms" it claimed to analyze. The title of the study's press release, "Women’s Quest for Romance Conflicts with Scientific Pursuits," does sound like something out of a former century, when women in college were urged to choose an Mrs. degree over a BS, MS or Ph.D.
One critic speculated that women in the study might be responding to "stereotype threat." That is, women who see images of romance get a strong dose of the stereotype that women put romance before smarts. When they face such stereotypes, they lose confidence--and with it the drive to pursue STEM fields.
The study's lead author objects that she was trying to make a similar point: "It's not something internal about [women] — it's the socialization practices."
Yet stereotypes are tricky things. What doesn't kill them can make them stronger. Inartfully-worded press releases about "Women's Quest for Romance" can merely feed the beast, no matter what intentions motivate them.